It was somewhat fitting that Paul Johnson announced his retirement from college football coaching on the same day as the annual Army-Navy press conference.
After all, Johnson’s two most prominent pupils had just spent considerable time talking about his mentoring and how they followed the template he created after being hired as head coaches at their respective service academies.
Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo and Army counterpart Jeff Monken worked with Johnson at multiple schools. Johnson hired both men as graduate assistants at Hawaii and that is when they began to learn the version of triple-option offense he developed.
Monken served as an assistant under Johnson at Georgia Southern then followed him to Navy. When Johnson was named head coach at Navy in 2002, he brought Niumatalolo back to Annapolis with the title of assistant head coach.
Johnson completely transformed a Navy program that had reached rock bottom, compiling 3-30 record over a three-year span (2000-2002). He led the Midshipmen to a phenomenal 43-19 mark and five bowl berths from 2003 through 2007.
Johnson left Navy prior to the 2007 Poinsettia Bowl to become head coach at Georgia Tech. The North Carolina native announced his retirement on Nov. 28 with the news breaking shortly after the annual Army-Navy luncheon had concluded.
Next stop for Johnson, who boasts an impressive 189-98 career record as a head coach, is probably the College Football Hall of Fame.
Monken was among five Navy assistants who went to Georgia Tech with Johnson. After two years in Atlanta, Monken was hired as head at Georgia Southern and enjoyed a successful four-year run, going 38-16 with three trips to the Football Championship Subdivision semifinals.
When Monken was lured away to Army West Point, there was never any question he would be implementing the exact blueprint Johnson used to turn around Navy.
“What he did there (at Navy), the job he did there to take that program from where it was to what it is now, that’s Paul Johnson,” Monken said.
“What he did, I try to model as much as that as we could when I came to Army and we are still modeling it after Paul Johnson and what he did. The toughness, the competitiveness, the support system that needs to surround the program in terms of academics and military training, it’s all from him.”
Niumatalolo was a backup quarterback at Hawaii when Johnson was offensive coordinator there and admits he wasn’t so fond of the man so man so much at the time.
“I didn’t like Coach Johnson a whole lot because I wasn’t playing and thought I should have been,” Niumatalolo said. “Despite that, I always had great respect for him as a coach. He was very honest and would tell you frankly where you stood. He’s a straight shooter.”
It was Johnson who suggested Niumatalolo give coaching a try and convinced Hawaii head coach Bob Wagner to make him a graduate assistant. It was basically a three-year course in Coaching 101 for the Hawaii native.
“Coach Johnson was a great teacher. When we had quarterback meetings at Hawaii, he knew how to simplify things and make them easy to understand,” Niumatalolo said. “Paul would take me out to lunch and talk about strategies and schemes. I cannot even quantify how much I learned from him during those early years.”
When Johnson left Hawaii to become offensive coordinator at Navy under head coach Charlie Weatherbie, he brought Niumatalolo along to help install the triple-option in Annapolis.
“I was honored that Paul thought enough of me to bring me to Navy. He needed someone else on the staff that knew the offense and chose me,” said Niumatalolo, who had never lived anywhere except Hawaii. “It was a leap of faith for my wife and I to pick up and move to the East Coast. The only reason I came was because I trusted Paul.”
When Johnson accepted the head coaching position at Georgia Southern, he recommended Niumatalolo take over as offensive coordinator. It did not work out with Weatherbie firing Niumatalolo after two years.
Fast forward a decade and Niumatalolo was once again promoted to replace Johnson, this time as head coach at Navy.
“I wouldn’t be in this position right now if it wasn’t for Paul,” Niumatalolo admitted. “Paul brought me back here and gave me a lot of responsibility.”
Niumatalolo and Johnson communicated less and less frequently as the years went along, too consumed by running their respective programs to have in-depth conversations. They made sure to speak on the phone at least once a year and routinely texted, but that was about it.
“We haven’t talked a ton over the last decade, which is probably one of my biggest regrets,” Niumatalolo said. “I dropped the ball. I should have made more of an effort to stay in touch with Paul.”
Niumatalolo learned of Johnson’s retirement shortly after returning to Annapolis after attending the Army-Navy media day event at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
“To actually hear that Paul had stepped down was a bit of a shock,” Niumatalolo said. “I’m just happy that he was able to go out on his own terms. Paul is one heck of a ball coach who has been doing it a long time. He’s helped out a lot of coaches and a lot of players.”
Niumatalolo called Johnson late last week to personally congratulate his mentor on an incredible career.
“I think Paul’s body of work speaks for itself. He was successful everywhere he went,” Niumatalolo said. “There are a lot of things that made Paul a great coach. Number one, he is super competitive and a very intelligent individual. He knew this offense inside and out because he basically created it. He knew how to manage a program, how to lead people.”
Johnson’s patented triple-option attack, which was unique because the slotbacks were positioned just outside the tackles and just off the line of scrimmage, is still churning out yards and points to this day. Georgia Tech leads the nation in rushing this season with 334.9 yards per game and ranks 22nd in scoring offense with an average of 35.6 points.
Navy led the Football Bowl Subdivision in rushing four of the six seasons Johnson was head coach. In 2007, the Midshipmen averaged almost 400 yards and 40 points per game.
“What Coach Johnson did at Navy in terms of the yards and points he put on the board may never be matched,” Monken said. “That last season we were scoring between 40 and 50 points all the time. I think we punted (24) times in 13 games that year, which is really remarkable.”
Monken said Saturday’s Army-Navy game, in one sense, will be a tribute to Johnson because two of his triple-option disciples will be on opposite sidelines.
“I think Kenny and I have both built our programs based off the model that Paul Johnson created for us,” Monken said. “My personality and style as a coach probably comes as much from Paul Johnson as anybody. I know Paul was a major influence on Kenny as well.”
FRIENDS AND ENEMIES: Niumatalolo and Monken got to know each other while serving as graduate assistants at Hawaii in 1990. Their friendship grew stronger during the six years they worked together as offensive assistants at Navy.
Niumatalolo and Monken stayed in contact after the latter left Navy. They talked regularly during the six seasons Monken spent at Georgia Tech and Georgia Southern. Niumatalolo remembers the day their relationship changed forever.
“Jeff called me one day and said he had a chance to get a job,” Niumatalolo recalled. “I said ‘Really, that’s great. Where are you going?’ He said, “West Point,’ and I said, ‘Where?’ I was like why in the heck do you have to go there of all places?”
Niumatalolo ultimately told Monken that he should take the job because Army West Point is a great institution and he knew his longtime friend would do well. Niumatalolo just wishes Monken had not done so well, so fast.
Army went 6-18 in Monken’s first two seasons at the helm, but is 27-10 since the start of 2016. The Black Knights will have back-to-back 10-win campaigns if they beat the Midshipmen on Saturday and are headed to a bowl game for the third straight year.
“It’s hard to win anywhere, but especially at a service academy. So what Monk has done has been remarkable,” Niumatalolo said. “Jeff is such a great person and comes from a great family. We both started in this profession together. It’s kind of weird that of all the jobs we had to get, we got ones at schools which were archrivals.”
While Army is 9-3 and slated to play Houston in the Armed Forces Bowl, Navy is 3-9 and staying home for the holidays. This is just the second losing season in the past 16 years for the Midshipmen, who have their worst record since finishing 2-10 in 2002.
Monken called this year an aberration and insisted the Navy program remains in superb shape with Niumatalolo in charge.
“Navy football has never been better than it is right now under Kenny Niumatalolo. He’s a great coach and if I had a son that was going to play college football I would want him to play for Kenny,” Monken said. “Kenny is someone that I love, respect and trust. I think he’s a remarkable football coach and an even better person. I know who he is as a coach and who he is as a man.”
Monken readily admits he has borrowed some of the ideas and philosophies Niumatalolo has implemented during his 11-year tenure as Navy head coach.
“I’ve watched and paid very close attention to what Kenny has done during his time as head coach at Navy. I know the culture he has created there in Annapolis,” Monken said. “I know that two Saturdays from now it’s going to be an absolute war because the two teams are built exactly the same.”
Monken acknowledged that his friendship with Niumatalolo has suffered because they are now enemies on the field of play. They briefly said hello and shook hands during the Army-Navy media event last week and the rare phone conversations are about families and mutual friends.
“It’s incredibly difficult to maintain the same friendship we had now that we’re on opposite sides of this rivalry because we can’t talk about anything football-related. That’s because we’re in a bare-knuckle brawl competition 365 days a year,” Monken said.
“We’re not going to share schemes that would help the other guy win. We’re not going to talk about recruiting because we’re both going after the same kids. We’re not going to complain about anything that might be bugging us because that would be giving away information.”
HOT CANDIDATE: Army’s remarkable resurrection has made Monken one of the hot candidates for Power Five conference coaching vacancies the last couple years. He was mentioned in connection with the Nebraska job last season and the Kansas opening this season.
If Georgia Tech chooses to stick with the triple-option, which is unlikely, Monken would be the leading candidate to replace Johnson. Army West Point athletic director Eugene “Boo” Corrigan was asked last week if he’s worried about losing Monken.
“I think Jeff is a great fit for West Point. However, I can assure you we are not going to rely on that factor alone,” Corrigan said. “We’re not going to sit back and wait for something to happen then react to that. Our goal has always been to be proactive.”
Monken agreed to a six-year contract when he was hired at West Point in December 2014. He received a multi-year extension in September, 2017 after ending Army’s 14-game losing streak to Navy and overseeing a victory in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
“I think my job is to constantly look forward as opposed to living in the moment and saying this is great. I’m always trying to figure out what is the next step,” Corrigan said. “That’s why we extended Jeff a few years ago. If I’m not looking two years ahead at all times I’m not doing my job.”
West Point leaders granted Monken’s request that summer military training be moved up to May and June so players could return to the academy for summer classes and preseason conditioning. Army has updated its weight room and added a nutrition bar for its athletes during Monken’s five-year tenure.
“We’ve been able to do a lot of things to upgrade, update and take care of various issues. Jeff and I are always talking about what we are doing with assistant coaches, what we are doing with facilities,” Corrigan said. “We meet on Tuesdays and it’s either a blank sheet of paper or I’ve got two things and he’s got three things.”
Monken, who was recently named a semifinalist for the George Munger Collegiate Coach of the Year Award for the second straight season, appreciates that Corrigan has been so supportive.
“I think we’ve worked really hard in developing a good relationship that’s built on trust,” he said. “We’ve gotten tremendous support from the entire academy – our superintendent, our commandants and our athletic director.”
Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk has been able to keep Niumatalolo in place for 11 years despite almost annual interest from Power Five conference programs. Corrigan can only hope to have similar success in keeping Monken at West Point.
“It just seems his appreciation for who we are, what we are and what we are doing – developing Army leaders – fits really well for him,” Corrigan said. “Now, it’s a matter of making sure we are doing everything that we can to accomplish what he needs and what we need for the staff.”
One thing working in Corrigan’s favor is the fact Monken believes so strongly in the fundamental idea of fielding a quality football program at the United States Military Academy.
“It’s one of the best institutions on the face of the planet and we should have a football program that represents it in a way we can all be proud,” he said. “I know I feel a tremendous responsibility to field a winning football program at West Point.”